The History Behind One of Your Most-Used Makeup Products

Many of us use mascara on a daily basis, but its multifaceted history tells of a dynamic, highly coveted product that has been reinvented many times over. Find out about the cosmetic item that's built beauty empires and lengthened innumerable lashes in the process.

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During the Bronze Age (around the 40th century BC), women and men added kohl (along with water and honey) to their lash lines, using bones as applicators. Women of the Renaissance used crushed walnut shells. And women in the Victorian era used ashes and soot to give their lashes color. It's unclear what they would have made of our embarrassment of wand options.

The Inventor of Mascara Had Another Important Job

An illustration for Eugène Rimmel's Le Livre des Parfums book in 1870. Photograph courtesy of Florilegius/Getty Images
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Eugène Rimmel was a nineteenth-century French-born perfumer based in England, who was responsible for creating scents for Queen Victoria. After opening the perfumery House of Rimmel, with his father, Rimmel created a formula for mascara composed of petroleum jelly and coal dust in the mid-1800s. Because of this, "rimmel" literally translates to "mascara" in Spanish, French, and Arabic, among other languages.

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Rimmel's Formula Inspired Another Big Brand 

Actress Port Kelton using a brush with her solid palette of mascara. Photograph courtesy of Ernest Bachrach

Tom Lyle Williams set out to improve upon Rimmel's petroleum jelly and coal combination after he saw his sister Mabel using the formula in the early 1900s. Adding an invisible liquid called Lash-Brow-Line to the recipe, Williams created the mascara that launched the beauty line Maybelline, which was named after Williams's sister. It had a hard, cake-y texture that was activated by water.

A Stage Performer Helped Revolutionize Mascara 

A portrait of Helene Winterstein Kambersky. Photograph courtesy of La Bella Nussy
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In the 1930s, German singer Helene Winterstein Kambersky developed a homemade waterproof mascara, because her other products constantly ran when she performed under bright stage lights. She patented the recipe, and started her cosmetics company, La Bella Nussy, in 1936. 

The '50s Saw the Invention of the Wand

Helena Rubinstein in her apartment. Photograph courtesy of Herbert Gehr/Getty Images

Polish mogul Helena Rubinstein (who is also said to have created waterproof mascara in 1939) first made the eyelash enhancer in the form we know and love today: a liquid in a tube, applied with a wand. Her version, which became available in 1958, was called Mascara Matic and set the standard for future products.

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Clear Mascara Made Its Debut in the '80s 

Max Factor's clear mascara is no longer available, but other brands have their own clear formulas. Professional Natural Lash Mascara by CoverGirl, $5,
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In 1988, Max Factor, the cosmetics company known for stage makeup, created the "No Color Mascara," a clear formula that had properties of volumizing mascaras of the time, minus the tint.

You'll Never Guess the Price of the Most Expensive Mascara 

The multimillion dollar mascara.

In 2006, the beauty brand H. Couture Beauty created a $14 million mascara that was inspired by a custom order from a Las Vegas resident. The tube was made out of 18-karat gold and was adorned with 2,500 blue diamonds. The purchase came with 24/7 customer service, refills, makeup tips, a lash comb, discounts on other products, and a lipstick-shaped USB drive. Curiously, the company is now out of business. 

Lancôme Has Some Kooky, Yet Influential Products

Grandiôse, $32,

Back in 2008, Lancôme released a vibrating mascara, Ôscillation, which is still available today. (The vibrations help lengthen and separate lashes.) Lancôme also sells a product called Grandiôse, which the company claims was the first "swan-neck" mascara on the market, bending to accommodate eye shape, unlike traditional mascaras that stand straight. This innovation influenced other companies, such as Clinique and Too Cool For School, to produce flexible wands. 

Most Mascara Has a Very Fishy Ingredient

A close-up view of the guanine source. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

The product gets its color from an ingredient called guanine, which is extracted from fish scales. The substance can also provide sheen and pearlescent shades to other types of cosmetics. For those of you looking to use vegan cosmetics, check the label! According to PETA, vegan-friendly alternatives to guanine include synthetic pearl, aluminum, bronze, and leguminous plants.    

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